Native Art Showcased: Ancient ways offer lessons for today

By in Arts & Music, Community, People

She always reminded me of an Indian princess. Indeed, as we skipped down the halls in high school, one could easier imagine her leaping athletically on her horse and galloping away, her long black tresses flowing in the wind, than spending another hour in Math class.
But that was eons ago!
Born and raised in Harriston, Della (Remus) Baumgarten now resides in Elora, where she runs “Ancient Ways”, a showcase for native art and lore. There are no “Made in China” labels here. All the woodworking, sculptures, paintings, carvings or beading are handiwork unique to the local nations.
Della’s father, Dawson Remus, was a man who believed in learning from the land. Nature and land speak, if only you are willing to listen. Dawson would take Della on excursions to the local bushes and teach her about nature and plants. He told her nearly forgotten stories of this area – how a group of gypsies once lived on a little triangle of land where the railroad traverses Highway 89 and the l0th line of Minto or of the band of natives from the Pike Lake area. Della was taken to see where the native people had lived, grew berry bushes, and made baskets. She remembers the bent-over trees where hides had been stretched and dried. After the Reynolds family purchased land near Pike Lake, the whole encampment moved north to the Owen Sound area.
Dawson knew about herbs and different tree barks for healing. Was he not of the same era as Levi Wesley who left the Saugeen Reserve and settled in Harriston? Levi (1883 – 1950) was known throughout Southern Ontario for his home remedies and medicines which cured many. Indeed, in a letter to the editor of the Minto Express a few years ago, Donnie Gray of Ottawa, recalled how Mrs. Wesley had cured his chest cold with a liquid far more obnoxious-tasting than Buckleys.
Jenna Dodds, who has been studying the tinctures of various herbs, has a quote she found in an antique physicians book, “For every disease that we know, God allows an herb to grow”
Della Remus learned from her father, not only about the native world but his other occupation, carpentry. Both Della and her mother Marion, were Dawson’s right hands as he constructed several buildings around town.
Years later Della sat on a public school board. She took this as her chance to insert some native history into the school curriculum. But it was not to be. She tried, and she did the follow-up as far as she could. Although there is ample information available from many different sources, it’s a long involved process from gathering history to designing a provincial study course. But it can be done – Saskatchewan has already incorporated native studies into the public school curriculum.
When she moved to Elora, the former Eastern Woodland Nations, Della found the local population didn’t know what had once been there, nor did they seem to care about the history of the natives who lived there before them. She wishes people did know more about their own native history.
Driven by her lifelong dream of bringing forward native experiences, Della and her mother renovated an older house in Elora and Ancient Ways, a store of authentic native arts, was born.
Her store, has been a catalyst in putting people together. Folks who seek out and visit her ‘gallery and gift shop’ tend to have the same interests. Della refers to her 10-year-old store as a “meeting place” where many have connected, whom otherwise might never have met.
Gracing the shelves, display cases and walls are paintings, carvings, soapstone figurines, masks, baskets, and artwork of leather, feather, and beads. Ancient Ways is home to original art, music, clothing and artifacts of the Algonquin and Iroquois nations.
The store is closed during January and February for inventory purposes, and to give Della a chance to visit some of the artists and acquire new pieces.
In order to more widely promote native culture, workshops are held in the summer. Two of the more popular are Sacred Medicines, and Drum Making. Impressed upon students at the onset, is the fact the native drum is not a musical instrument, and should never be played unless the drummer has something to communicate. The drum is deer skin stretched over a cedar frame, the drum stick leather stuffed with leather. Individual musical sounds are produced from tapping on different areas around the drum. Native songs often repeat the same verse four times – chanting to the north, east, south and west winds.
Everything on earth has a meaning. The Bear is a teacher and healer. The eagle, because he flies the highest, is the messenger to the Creator. A feather down means peace, up is war. There are Burden Baskets – before you enter a domain you leave your burdens in the basket hung outside the door. The turtle offered itself to give us the land – North America is Turtle Island.
Many of the legends and lore have a moral, or reason for being. Learning these stories provides a greater understanding of the respect and knowledge our ancestors had of the world around them. They knew things about plants because they used them in everyday life. The common weed, horsetail, was used for pot scrapers because it is quite abrasive. Natives knew what was edible and what was poisonous – and they taught their children these things. Do we still?
Paddles hanging on Della’s wall have exquisite paintings. Surely these objects d’art are to be displayed and admired? No, the native community does not distinguish between crafts and utility. All are everyday articles intended to be used. The artist wants his decorated paddle to be practical and connect with water. He wants it to be used as an oar.
Ancient Ways also features jewelry, small Indian dolls, music and totem stones. These polished stones with carved figures have been used as symbols of power and expression for ages. Carry the stone and its magical talisman works for you. Because I enjoy horticulture I chose a pale green translucent stone emblazoned with an etching of a windswept tree.
Asked if everything in the shop was for sale, Della shook her head and opened the cash register. She produced one of her own totems and a five-inch piece of black rock very thin at one end. This was an authentic tool for skinning hides. It carries a special meaning as Harriston resident Grant MacKenzie gave it to her. It had been found years ago on his son Wayne’s farm near Paisley.
To visit the gallery is a history lesson in itself. Della is passionate about native culture and can rhyme off the story behind each display with an enthusiasm that quickly spreads to her visitors. That’s another trait she inherited from her father. Dawson was very eloquent in his poetry about everyday things and the surrounding area. How many still have his little booklet “Railroads and Rail Fences” printed in 1985?
I mentioned to Della that our group of dry stone wallers (See “Structures of Stone” The Rural Route, Feb. 2010) will be constructing a ‘longhouse’ in the spring on the property of Raymond and Suzanne Love. “But the Indians didn’t build their longhouses with stone,” was her swift response. My answer, “we know, but this is an amalgamation of ideas, and since it will hopefully one day be a museum of artifacts from the Holstein area, it has to be practical, strong and enduring”.
May the moon spirit always guide you in your knowledge about those who share Mother Earth. If you don’t understand, you’re not listening.


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